CINCINNATI — When Ezekiel Elliott committed to Ohio State in 2013, it ended a long, grueling – and sometimes painful – recruiting process. Parents Stacy and Dawn were both successful athletes at Missouri, Ezekiel’s home state, making an already difficult decision tougher.
But comfort and ease led Elliott to Columbus and Ohio State. Relationships with the coaching staff grew stronger as National Signing Day approached, contributing to Elliott’s move from Missouri. On Wednesday, five-star linebacker Justin Hilliard described a similar situation.
“The thing that separates the schools are the relationships you build around campus with the players and coaches,” he said. “I got to know the players like Raekwon [McMillan] and [Ryan] Shazier and some of the other greats.
“The comfortability rate for me at Ohio State was high, and I have always been an Ohio State fan. It was a pretty easy choice. My room is decorated in Ohio State gear. Even the commits there are very close knit. A lot of them have reached out to me.”
Hilliard may hail from inside Ohio’s borders, but the family culture inside the Woody Hayes Athletic Center is what set the Buckeyes apart from his other suitors – Iowa, Notre Dame and Alabama. The calm, relaxed feeling he felt at Ohio State was enough to separate Hilliard from his real family, or at least his brother, C.J., a freshman running back at Iowa.
“I just told him to follow his heart and go with his gut,” C.J., said.
The past few years for the Hilliard family have been spent traversing the country visiting college campuses. Justin was determined to find the right fit – academically, athletically and comfort level. It’s not uncommon for prospects to get caught up in the process and make commitments based on emotion during visits.
Rash decisions are not part of Hilliard’s makeup. Ohio’s top 2015 recruit heard every program’s best sales pitch, but he never bit on promises or other baseless words. Instead, he opted for the family atmosphere.
“It’s been a long and hard process, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” Hilliard said.
His parents quickly learned the value of family at Ohio State. Conversations with Urban Meyer were like talking to a friend and felt natural. Each visit up 71 North brought more reassurance that Ohio State was the right destination for Hilliard. Stacy Elliott had similar feelings during Ezekiel’s recruitment.
Recruiting features broken promises, snake oil salesmen and amateur psychics. Stacy Elliott was leery throughout the process and stayed grounded, not allowing sentiment to enter into the talking points.
“When we met Coach Urban Meyer, he really stressed how he wanted to continue producing a family environment at Ohio State,” he said. “To be honest, as a parent, when we first went there, I thought that would be almost impossible because of the magnitude of the program – the security, your son being whisked off to places you can’t even go. At other schools, I could go in the locker room. I’ve never been in the locker room at Ohio State. That’s sacred ground.
“After Ezekiel came to Ohio State, I had an ongoing relationship with Coach Meyer. I work with youths, and I noticed how much time he put into programs and situations to better his student-athletes.”
The culture Meyer established trickled into the families of players. That environment is evident on game days when the Elliotts, the Apples, the Bosas and other family members join together at tailgates and put football discussions aside. They talk about life – kids, parents, jobs.
And it doesn’t conclude when football season ends. There’s constant communication on Twitter and group text messages. The welcoming nature surrounding the football program has led the Elliotts to spend part of the year at a residence in Ohio. It’s something Stacy said would never have happened if not for the atmosphere.
“Coach Meyer tells us as parents and families to take ownership. So me and my family have led the charge in doing that, and it’s a beautiful thing,” he said. “Because I’m in Columbus a lot, I’ve become like an uncle to a lot of these young men. I did not know that my presence would be that much needed.”
When it comes to Meyer and running backs coach Stan Drayton, Elliott said the relationship isn’t based off of Ezekiel’s talents. It exists because Meyer and Drayton are genuine friends.
“I have my personal opinions, we all want our child to play more,” Stacy said. “But I told Coach Meyer and Coach Drayton no matter what happens between my son and them, we will always be friends. I believe in what they do and what they stand for.”
The former Missouri Tiger now refers to himself as a Buckeye and was decked out in an Ohio State shirt on Wednesday. Hilliard and five-star defensive end Jashon Cornell opted for hats, the piece of clothing of choice for recruits. In line with the family talk, it was no coincidence that Hilliard and Cornell made their announcements on the same day.
The duo settled on the Buckeyes in recent weeks and charted a path that includes recruiting other players to join them at Ohio State. While Damien Harris and Matthew Burrell might find Hilliard and Cornell convincing, Carl Hilliard, Justin’s father, spoke highly of the feeling he got from talking to Meyer, Luke Fickell and Kerry Coombs.
“It was really a tag team approach,” Carl said. “We knew about Coach Meyer and what he had done in football, but our goal was to find out truly what he was about. They really showed us the support system.”
That includes Stacy Elliott, someone Carl referred to as one of his new “best friends.”
St. Xavier head coach Steve Specht is no stranger to recruiting – or Meyer. Coaching at a Division I powerhouse exposes him to courting in major college football every recruiting cycle. And he happened to be coached by Meyer during his own career at St. Xavier in the mid-1980s.
“Coach Meyer is a very genuine person,” Specht said. “He has been through all of the battles. Yeah, he can pull his rings out. He can play a lot of different roles because he has been there and done that. But the one thing that is different about Coach Meyer is his passion for the game and his fiery nature. Kids feed off that and love that. I think that had an impact for Justin.”
From Elliott in 2013 to Hilliard in 2015 and many more to come, Meyer has fostered the ultimate players atmosphere. In a results-oriented business, steady top-five recruiting classes are evidence that Ohio State’s winning over trust one family at a time.